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The woman of the ear: Lata Mangeshkar

Firstpost logo Firstpost 08-03-2022 Subhash K Jha
The woman of the ear: Lata Mangeshkar © Provided by Firstpost The woman of the ear: Lata Mangeshkar

Celebrating the Lata Mangeshkarian magic is not easy. Mangeshkar defines six generations of beauty grace and melody in Hindi cinema. Or as the ebullient Dev Anand once described it: “If Lata sneezed the whole industry caught a cold.”

So how powerful was Lata Mangeshkar? And we are not talking about the power that comes from the zeros in your bank account. It’s another kind of power, a power that comes from possessing a rare kind of talent that incites a worshipful awe and reverence. I remember entering a restaurant with Lataji and her sister and the minute we entered all conversation on the tables ceased completely. Every patron man or woman, adult or grownup, was on his or her feet. That was the magic of Lataji.

When seen in public no one came forward to speak to her or get a picture from her: they just stood and watched her with admiration. Says diehard Latabhakt Jaya Bachchan, “When one saw her for the first time, the feeling is indescribable. That she actually existed is like a miracle. When I saw her for the first time I just kept staring at her open-mouthed. I think she was used to it.”

Sanjay Leela Bhansali who says he learnt direction by listening to her singing says for many years he didn’t want to meet his idol.  “I didn’t want my reverence for her to be eroded. I would just find excuses to drive past Prabhu Kunj (Lataji’s residence) hoping that she would pass by on her balcony. But she never did.” Then when Bhansali finally met his Mata Saraswati, he was struck by the aura. “She exuded a serenity, and a godliness that was just mesmerizing. Just sitting with her I felt close to God,” adds Bhansali.

This kind of veneration is unknown to civilization. As my dear friend Javed Akhtar puts it, “It begins and ends with her.” What made Lata Mangeshkar one of her kind was not only her extraordinary singing talent, she was also a woman way ahead of her times who worked in the viciously patriarchal Mumbai film industry on her own terms.

Lataji was just 13 when she had to fend for her family. When her father the great Pandit Dinanath Mangeshkar was on his deathbed, it was clear that little Lata had suddenly grown up. Sister Asha Bhosle recalled how Lataji summoned all the siblings around her ailing father, she then commanded her sister Asha to get a thali and a lota filled with water. Little Lata then poured the water in the thali, put her father’s feet in the thali and told her siblings to drink the water as god’s charanamrit.

From the tender age of 13 Lataji went out to search for work. She once said “I did some acting though I hated it. But I had no choice. I was suddenly the only earning member of my family. I had to look after my mother, three sisters and one brother. Luckily my career as a singer took off in no time. I was soon recording two to three songs per day. There was no time for any of the things that girls my age did.  My dolls were all forgotten.”

Lataji remained single all her life. In 1949 when Lataji’s career took off in a big way with a slew of sensational chartbusters she demanded, and got, the name of the singer on the record. Prior to this the name on the record was that of the character played by the actress for whom Lataji ghost-voiced. In the 1960s she fought a valiant copyright battle for royalty money for playback singers, and won.

Known to be extremely charitable and kind to those whom she was close to, she never charged Hrishikesh Mukherjee a single penny for any of the classics she sang in his cinema. Lataji never allowed anyone to take her for granted. Nor would she compromise on the quality of her work. If she felt her voice was not up to the recording she would cancel at the last minute. Sets were known to be dismantled because she refused to sing in a less than perfect voice.

As she explained to me once, “For the producer, it was a job done. But for me it was there for posterity, I couldn’t compromise on the quality of my voice.” Not many know this, but Lataji was the first female working professional in the Hindi film industry to raise her voice against harassment.  The singer was a top playback name before Mohd Rafi. He would find excuses to make improper comments. One day he commented on a necklace she was wearing. Lataji walked out of the recording (for the formidable Naushad) and vowed to never sing with that singer again. She never did.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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